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When teenager Frank Mccourt sailed from Ireland to America in 1949, he had nothing. With just a primary school education, he managed to attend college and eventually became a high school English teacher. For 30 years, Mccourt entertained his students with tales of his childhood in Limerick. On his last day of teaching, one student told him he should write a memoir. “Angela’s Ashes,” published in 1996, vaulted Frank Mccourt from an unknown first-time writer in his sixties to a world-renowned author. It’s the story of a childhood shaped not just by poverty, but also a resilient spirit. Join Diane and her guests for our March Reader’s Review of “Angela’s Ashes.”
- Caitriona Palmer Washington Correspondent, The Irish Independent
- Peter Quinn novelist and political historian
- Coilin Owens Professor Emeritus of English, George Mason University. His latest book is titled "Before Daybreak: 'After the Race' and the Origins of Joyce's Art."
- Billy Collins U.S. Poet Laureate 2001 to 2003. He is a Distinguished Professor of English at City University of New York, where he has taught for the past 30 years.
Frank McCourt called his memoir “Angela’s Ashes” an epic of woe. Despite its portrayal of a wretched childhood, the book inspired millions of readers. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and spent 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
A Book That Marinated
McCourt, who taught English for many years in New York after moving to the U.S. from his childhood home of Limerick, Ireland, didn’t write “Angela’s Ashes” until he was 66 years old. “It was really marinated over years and years,” Quinn said. “He was working on that book from the time I met him and telling the stories and refining them and turning it into the literary masterpiece it became from a stage pice really, that’s how it started,” Quinn said.
Writing In A Child’s Voice
McCourt once said there was nothing as deadly as the detachment in a child’s voice, that it’s pure, and that children can tell the truth. Palmer thinks McCourt’s decision to tell the story in a child’s voice is key to the success of the book. “He manages to achieve the authenticity of the child’s voice and in many ways, a simple syntax, repetition, the feeling of not knowing what’s going on in centers of power, in the minds of his parents or in the priests’ minds or the teachers,” Palmer said.
Some In Limerick Resented The Book
There were some people in McCourt’s hometown that accused him of lying in his memoir. Quinn said he witnessed one woman accuse McCourt of lying and when pressed about what parts of the book were untrue, she said, “There are no cobblestones in Limerick.” But others, Quinn said, noted that things may even have been worse in McCourt’s childhood Limerick than he described in the book.
McCourt’s Impression On Writers
Collins thinks McCourt’s legacy to pass on to other writers will be his handling of unhappiness. “Frank had a way of turning suffering into a kind of boast in this very comic way and leavening the sacred and the serious with a comic touch,” Collines said. “No matter how miserable or oppressive the content is, we feel very protected and very protective of the narrator and warmed by his voice,” Collins said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Frank McCourt called his memoir "Angela's Ashes" an epic of woe. Despite its portrayal of a wretched childhood, the book inspired millions readers. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and spent 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Joining me in the studio for this month's Reader's Review, novelist and political historian Peter Quinn, Caitriona Palmer of the Irish Independent and Coilin Owens of George Mason University. Poet Billy Collins will join us by phone later in the hour. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Join in the conversation by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MS. CAITRIONA PALMERGood morning, Diane.
MR. PETER QUINNGood morning.
MR. COILIN OWENSGood morning.
REHMSo good to have you here. We are fortunate enough to have Frank McCourt reading from his own book. And I'd like to start this morning's discussion from the very first page of "Angela's Ashes."
MR. FRANK MCCOURT"When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood. The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version, the poverty, the shiftless, loquacious alcoholic father, the pious, defeated mother moaning by the fire, pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters, the English and the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years."
REHMIt's interesting to me, Peter Quinn, that as you were listening to that, you smiled, you almost laughed. It is the one portion in the book where Frank McCourt speaks as an adult looking back on his childhood. Did you smile and laugh because you were hearing his voice or is there something else?
QUINNWell, I knew Frank for 30 years before he wrote "Angela's Ashes." And he and his brother Malachy used to do a show, a "Couple of Blaguards." So I was just remembering hearing him on stage doing it and the ironic tone to it that, you know, it's this terrible childhood, but Frank's tone is telling you, there's something else here. There's a great story and a lot of life and a lot of laughter and just the sheer, I mean, the kind of comic exaggeration of it.
REHMComic exaggeration, and that is our first email. And I'd like you all to chime in on this. Marion in Springfield, Va. Says, "When this book was published, many people thought Frank McCourt was stretching the truth to make a good story. It's shocking and sad that so many people are not aware of the tremendous poverty, not only in Ireland, but in Frank McCourt's adopted city of New York." Coilin Owens, what do you say to that?
OWENSWell, the introduction that he just read would not lead you to believe you're going to read a comic novel or a comic account of his own past, which many took to be a novel. It wasn't, in fact. The truth of it was, was terrible. But the spirit with which he engaged in his own hardships is what carried the book and his reputation as a writer and as a man of spirit and energy and self reliance and adventure, stocking his mind with books which he did not need money to get. And that's, I think, one of the great powerful images that I take from the book, his self reliance, his intelligence, his drive, his comic energy.
REHMCaitriona, when did you first read "Angela's Ashes?"
PALMERI first read the book many, many years ago, possibly 10 years ago. And I think one of the interesting aspects of rereading the book for this show is that I've become a mother in the interim. And I had a baby, just my third child about two months ago. And I'm not sure whether it's the postpartum hormones, but I wept through most of the book this time.
PALMERI cried throughout many, many, many passages. It's just such a heartrending story. I think of Angela and how she lost three children. And there's also a miscarriage which doesn't get much play either. But just the...
REHMFrank McCourt's mother.
PALMERFrank McCourt's mother, Angela. It's just such a heartrending story and yet one of great love and compassion and forgiveness. I think one of the great key words in the passage that you just played was survived. And I think of Frank as a survivor of trauma in a way. It took him -- he was 65 when he first wrote the book. And when asked once at a literary conference, why did it take you so long, he simply replied one word, recovering.
QUINNYes, well, he told the story so many times. I mean, it was really marinated over years and years. You know, people say he sat down at 66 to write it, but he was working on that book from the time I met him and telling the stories and refining them and turning it into the literary masterpiece it became from a stage piece really, that's how it started.
REHMIs it true that he was telling stories to his students and one student urged him to write a book?
QUINNA lot of people urged him to write a book. I'm sure his students did, his friends did, said, Frank, you have to put this down on paper. You can't just let this go. And in the end, he said, when he was retiring, he was going to write this story. And I kind of thought to myself, you know, well, that's a great thing to do, but it's a story about growing up poor in Ireland. Who's going to read it? Your mother's dead. But I didn't say that to him, thank God.
REHMLet's talk about his mother, Caitriona. Why does Frank McCourt write, "my mother's troubles began the night she was born"?
PALMERWell, that's a wonderful part of the book. Angela was born at midnight, hence her name. She was born when the Angelas were playing. And McCourt writes that she was born with her head in the New Year and her behind in the old and that was the very beginning of her troubles. Angela went to New York after failing at becoming a charwoman in Ireland. Her mother declared her useless and said that there's all sorts of uselessness in America, so dispatched her. And that's where she met Malachy and there begins the true beginnings of her woe.
REHMAnd her woe begins before she marries Malachy.
OWENSIt does, but it's compounded when she meets him because this alcoholic, stereotypically patriotic Irishman living on the grievances of the past, misses the life opportunities presented to him because he's an alcoholic and he makes her life and the lives of the children intolerable. Yet, despite all of that, one can't but feel that in the book Frank owes so much to his father, his father's storytelling abilities, ability to sing and perform. And it's a performance book. It's an oral book transmitted onto paper. You can hear him, even if you don't hear the recording, you can hear the energy of his voice. And it's a spoken, not a heavily literary book. Its authenticity, its personal testimony is what gives it such terrific presence and readability.
REHMI think the other thing that gives me the internal movement of the book is the fact that it's told through the eyes of a child, all the way through. And that child simply states the facts, Peter.
QUINNYes, well, Frank often said that he had said tried to write the book several times and he was writing in an adult voice and it was this breakthrough he had where one point he was thinking and writing in the voice of the child and that was the key to all that material that was there and framing it in the right way. And that is the genius of the book. And I think there are real literary passages in it, that it transcends just a memoir and it is literature at points.
PALMERI think what's interesting is that Frank himself said that he had been struggling to write in this affected joycean way and when he was babysitting his granddaughter, he had an epiphany and that epiphany was writing in the voice of a child. He once said that there was nothing as deadly as the detachment in a child's voice, that it's pure, that they can tell the truth. And I think using that child's voice is really the key to the success of this book. It's so pure and simple.
REHMHe writes what he sees and that's the question. Can a 65-year-old man truly recall so vividly exactly what it is that child sees, Coilin?
OWENSHe evidently did and he's able to remove the filter that age would have given him, that would give any of us on our own childhood. And he manages to achieve the authenticity of the child's voice and in many ways, a simple syntax, repetition, the feeling of not knowing what's going on in centers of power, in the minds of his parents or in the priests' minds or the teachers. He's always the victim and the outsider looking on with amusement at this carnival of life that he doesn't know the answer to or what's the secret or what's the mystery behind it, and he's the outsider.
REHMAnd at the hands of each and every one of the people you've just mentioned, he experiences discrimination.
OWENSHe certainly does, from his father through the teachers, through the priests, through the brothers, through the bureaucrats. And there are one or two figures there who are kind to him, the teacher who inspires him to stock his mind, the Franciscan who hears his confession towards the end and one or two others. But other than that, the adults are a strange and alien world.
REHMCoilin Owens, he's professor emeritus of English at George Mason University. We'll take a short break. I hope you'll join us as we talk about "Angela's Ashes."
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking about Frank McCourt's fabulous memoir titled "Angela's Ashes." It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award. It spent 117 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. He was 65 when it was published. He became an international sensation. It was his first book. He went on to write two more about his life both in Ireland and in New York City.
REHMHere with me are three people who know and love the book clearly as much, if not more, than I. And many of you, I’m sure, have read it so I invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Peter Quinn is a novelist, political historian. He's the author of "Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America." Caitriona Palmer's Washington correspondent for the Irish Independent. Coilin Owens is Professor Emeritus of English at George Mason University.
REHMCaitriona, Frank deals with such tragedy at such an early age. He talks about the twin who dies. And it really is because there is no money, there is no doctor. What happens?
PALMERWell, the twin Oliver catches pneumonia very soon after the family returned from America to Limerick. And he dies at home and there's a very touching scene where he's placed in the coffin. Also the second twin then also dies six months later. And it's just such a terribly poignant scene where you have a family that essentially are at war with each other who are in the room and there's the moment where the mother, too grief stricken, is unable to place the body in the coffin.
REHMLet's hear Frank McCourt reading that.
FRANK MCCOURT"Grandma whispers to Aunt Aggie, who'll put the child in the coffin? And Aunt Aggie whispers, I won't. That's the job for the mother. Uncle Pat hears them. I'll put the child in the coffin, he says. He limps to the bed and places his arms around Mam's shoulders. She looks up at him and her face is drenched. He says, I'll put the child in the coffin, Angela. Oh Pat, she says, Pat. I can do it, he says. So he's only a small child and I never lifted a small child before in me life. I never had a small child in me arms. I won't drop him, Angela, I won't. Honest to God, I won't. I know you won't, Pat. I know you won't.
FRANK MCCOURTI'll lift him and I won't be singing "The Road To Rasheen." I know you won't, Pat, Mam says. Pat pulls down the blanket Mam put there to keep Eugene warm. Eugene's feet are white and bright with little blue veins. Pat bends over, picks up Eugene and holds him against his chest. He kisses Eugene's forehead and then everyone in the room kisses Eugene. He places Eugene in the coffin and steps back. We're all gathered around looking at Eugene for the last time. Uncle Pat says, see, I didn't drop him, Angela, and she touches his face."
REHMSuch an incredible passage, Coilin, because Uncle Pat, it is said, had been dropped on his head as a child.
OWENSHe had. The debilities under which the family lived and died, the diseases, the infant mortality, the accidents, there's a catalog of them in this pathetic book. And this is one of the most moving passages in it indeed. But it's not unfortunately atypical of the world in which the McCourts grew up. Infant mortality was very high, as it is in most of the third world today.
OWENSMany years ago when I asked readers of this book about their responses to it, many of them told me, people who came from third world countries that, what's strange about this? This is the way much of the world is. We should not accuse him of lying. These tragedies are all around the world, not just in Limerick.
REHMAnd how Angela, the mother, endures these tragedies is beyond me.
PALMERIt really is. It's just an extraordinary testimony to the strength of women during that time. I think one of the overarching themes of this book is just how horrendous it was to be a woman, not just a woman, but a poor woman in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s. These women are beholden to their husbands and to the church and to the state. Ironically, they are dominable matriarchs within their own homes. But the minute they step outside they have to submit to the church, which rules their reproductive rights and to the state, which ruled their working rights.
PALMERBut I thought of Angela so often while reading this book and just the strength it took her to get through every day, not having just to deal with the grief of the death of her children, but having to put foods in the bellies of the ones that are still alive.
QUINNShe's never at a loss for words either. There's a great passage where she's sitting with a woman and the woman says, you know, God is here in the lanes of Limerick. God is good. And she said, well, he might be good, but he hasn't been on the lanes of Limerick lately so...
REHMYou know, it's interesting because Limerick itself becomes a character in the book, Peter.
QUINNYes. I went with Frank to see the filming of the movie in Limerick. I was talking to my colleagues before and we went back, we were standing in the back of the Redemptorist Church where Frank had first heard Ernest Hemingway denounced, which we both found kind of hilarious. And a woman was looking at him and she couldn't believe what she was seeing. And she came over and she said, you're not Frank McCourt, are you? And he said, I am. And she said, your book is filled with lies. And he said, name one. And she said, there were no cobblestones in Limerick and she walked away. And that was...
QUINNBut I encountered that with Frank in Limerick that there were people who said -- there was a priest, Angus Fenukin (sp?) who headed one of the relief organizations and he said he grew up in Limerick. He's this Catholic priest who said every word in that book is true.
QUINNHe said, in fact, it might've been worse than Frank, in some cases, than Frank let on. So, you know, there are people on both sides of that argument.
QUINNBut I think to go back to one thing you said about, you know, Frank's memory of this. This is not an autobiography. It's a memoir. And one of the striking things of just listening to that passage is the immediacy of it. You were in that room. He is seeing that and you are seeing it. There's no sense that this is somebody remembering. It's somebody there and Frank said that, that he was able through that voice of that child in a memoir -- memoir's not saying -- I mean, he's reproducing conversation...
QUINN...50 years later. But it's so real. It's so strikingly real, there's not a false word there.
REHMNow you mentioned the church, Peter, and Frank McCourt writes about his first communion day.
MCCOURT"We ran to the church. My mother panted along behind with Michael in her arms. We arrived at the church just in time to see the last of the boys leaving the alter rail where the priest stood with the chalice and the host glaring at me. Then he placed on my tongue the wafer, the body and blood of Jesus at last. At last, it's on my tongue. I draw it back. It's stuck. I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master's voice, don't let that host touch your teeth. For if you bite God in two, you'll roast in hell for eternity.
MCCOURTI tried to get God down with my tongue, but the priest hissed at me, stop that clucking and get back to your seat. But God was good. He melted and I swallowed him. And now at last I was a member of the true church, an official sinner."
REHMAn official sinner. Coilin, talk about the Catholic Church in Limerick and Ireland at that time.
OWENSWell, the Irish church really became formed during the 19th century under the emphasis, under the leadership of the Vatican One. So it was a very strictly Jansenist church that controls people's lives at a very deep level and into the innermost reaches of their heart and consciences. And while it promoted a sense of morality among many, it also provoked many to revulsion and derision, as the passage just read implies.
OWENSThe church dominated lives in many ways, from the families to the education system and into public life. And that's one of the institutions against which McCourt is reacting. And he treats it with a certain degree of exaggeration and caricature, to be sure, as the passage just read implies. It perhaps didn't deserve all of that, but that is the way it impressed itself upon a very sensitive, intelligent young man who was fairly typical.
REHMThe – you wanted to add something.
QUINNI have to say, growing up in the pre-Vatican Two Irish Catholic Church in the Bronx, that scene strikes me as totally realistic. We were told by the nuns, don't touch the host to your teeth. I mean, it's funny. At the same time, once again, it's true. Frank finds the humor in it. And I always loved Chesterton's remark about there can be no great religion that can't laugh at itself. And again, there's something tender in that scene and wonderful and almost forgiving of the whole thing.
REHMThe innocent (unintelligible) ...
REHMIt's not bitter at all. There's no -- you know...
QUINN...so many times in the book it could just be so weighted down with such bitterness and it isn't. It always takes this jump to find the humor and...
REHMEven starvation, even the fact that one's pa has gone off with the earnings and instead of bringing them home to Angela so that she can buy food, they have nothing. What is it that allows this child such forgiveness of his father, Caitriona?
PALMERWell, one of the moving parts of the book for me is Frank's relationship with the angel on the seventh step. And even though you have a church that is omnipresent and is very much there, the child finds comfort and spirituality with this angel who he visits with and he sits and tells his worries to. And the father and mother pass knowing glances at one another when Frank tells them about this angel. But I think it's a wonderful moment of spirituality and of escapism for this little boy who is so hungry and so cold and in such deprivation.
QUINNYes. That's one thing, too, of that church, and Frank would be the first one to say it because occasionally when I was in Ireland, I would go to Mass. And he would come with me, but he would say, you know, liturgically it was a rich -- mythically, we have this rich world. And the church, for all its drawbacks and its oppression, there was this liturgical life of benediction and the singing of Latin hymns and these beautiful prayers that were part of, I think, his literary imagination and enriched his experience.
QUINNWe used to say the Salve Regina together. We both love that prayer. It's a very rich prayer, and that was part of that world along with all the negative parts was this other part. And the sense, as you were just saying, with the angel that this is not all there is. There's another dimension to things. And I think Frank always said he had that spiritual sense.
REHMPeter Quinn and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Coilin, you wanted to add to that.
OWENSYes. One function of the church was to relieve the poor and indeed one of the institutions that he is grateful for in the book and in his life, subsequently, was the church's St. Vincent de Paul Society that actually stood between them and total starvation much of the time. And McCourt acknowledged that in his later life.
REHMTell me about how he died, Peter.
QUINNFrank died of a melanoma on his leg. It was a small...
QUINN...it was like a circle on his leg. He showed it to me and we didn't think it was anything. And then it metastasized and he had a seizure that had gone to his brain. And he went into a hospice on the east side of Manhattan. I saw him the day before he died and one of the most -- you talk about an angel on the seventh step. He had a beautiful Jamaican Afro-Caribbean woman. And Ellen, his wife, said -- introduced and she said, what's your name, to the nurse and the nurse said, Angela. And we all looked at each other.
QUINNAnd I said this -- and she didn't know. I said, this man wrote a book about Angela. It was his mother's name. And, you know, she was this beautiful African Caribbean woman and she just lit up and smiled and said, oh, that's great. I've never taken care of an author before. So, I mean, you know, is it coincidence or is there such a thing as grace? I don't...
QUINN...I think maybe there is such a thing as grace.
REHM...how old was he?
REHMWhat a shame.
QUINNWell, we were saying that before, what a shame. He had 13 of the best years. You know, you can live -- those 13 first years, he was such a star everywhere he went. We used to have a thing called the First Friday Club where we all would want to be authors. We met for years and nobody ever wrote anything. And he wrote this book and we had to disband the club because he was so famous.
QUINNAnd he spent a month at the -- what's the famous hotel in London? They made him the writer of the -- and he would be so funny because he would just say, whoever, who would've thunk? This is just...
QUINNAnd he enjoyed every single minute of it.
REHMOf course, he must have.
QUINNSo and he wasn't, you know, there was not a begrudger in Frank. And at the end, I think just being with him the last day of his life, he was grateful. He was, in a sense, for the whole experience and kind of that wide-eyed wonder of that child was still there.
REHMHow long had he been married?
QUINNWell, he had been married three times. And I think in some ways, the third marriage, Ellen was the key. She was the one who kind of really felt that he had this book in him and he had to get it out. And she's the one who encouraged him and said, now you're retired. There are no more excuses. You have to write it.
QUINNAnd if he had a muse, it was not only Angela, it was Ellen McCourt.
REHMThat's just a wonderful story. Did he have a drinking problem as did his father?
QUINNNo, he did not. He drank in moderation. I never saw him -- I mean, we all took a drink too many once in a while, but he didn't have a -- he got up for work and he couldn't write a book like that -- Frank was a very disciplined person. You know, he was an actor and he did shows. And he and Malachy traveled all around.
QUINNWhen I met Frank, his brother owned a bar, Malachy McCourt, on 11th Street called Bells of Hell. And Malachy used to be on the Jack Parr Show, if you remember that, years ago. Malachy was a great character. And everybody knew Frank as Malachy's brother. And then Malachy says, I'm now introduced as people say to me and my official title is, I read your brother's book.
REHMCaitriona, were you angry at his father?
PALMERI was conflicted reading about his father because Frank shows such love for him and such compassion that it's hard. I flit back and forth. I think, you know, Frank himself referred to his father as the Holy Trinity. There were three fathers, the father in the morning who made tea, the father in the afternoon who read stories and the father at night who did the bad thing. And I conflicted too with that bad thing.
REHMCaitriona Palmer. She's Washington correspondent for the Irish Independent. When we come back, it's time to open the phones. I'll look forward to hearing your comments.
REHMIf you've just joined us for this month's Readers' Review, we've selected Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" which won not only the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, spent 107 weeks on the -- 17 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Joining us now by phone from Florida is former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Good morning to you, sir. It's so good to talk with you.
MR. BILLY COLLINSIt's great to be part of this conversation on one of my very favorite subjects, Frank McCourt.
REHMWell, I gather you knew him personally.
COLLINSI'm very happy to include myself in his many, many friends, thousands of friends. I met him just when "Angela's Ashes" was coming out. I was asked to introduce him. And my mother had died at 97 about two months before that. And the last book she had read was "Angela's Ashes." So when I introduced Frank, I couldn't help but mention that. And I worked on the sentence like crazy. And the sentence, I'll never forget it, I said I owe a special debt to the man who provided the woman who taught me how to read with her final literary pleasure, Frank McCourt. And then Frank got up to the podium and he shot me a look like you're not supposed to make these people emotional, that's my job.
COLLINSYou know, he thought I'd stirred them up a little too much. But if I could just go back, my little contribution to the importance everyone is pointing out of tone. And I think, you know, Frank made it well known that he could not -- he had the material for the book, he had the accumulated misery of this child that there was no way to release it until he had this tone of voice. And I think that's actually the key to all three books, just to expand the conversation for a minute. You know, in "Angela's Ashes" you have the innocence of childhood dealing with the strangeness of poverty and life in Ireland and just life itself.
COLLINSAnd in "'Tis" you have the innocence of a young immigrant who's trying to figure out this new country. And in "Teacher Man" you have someone who is an adult now, but he's trying to figure out this whole other world of the New York City high school system, which obviously presents its own challenges. And it's interesting to -- I think that's the thread that ties them together. It's interesting to speculate what he would've written next. He would've had to write -- the next chapter in his life was really about being a world famous writer...
COLLINS...but he did tell me at one point, he said that he's -- he said, I'm so sick of writing about myself. I think the next book I write will be a biography of Napoleon.
QUINNHe always told me he wanted to write a novel, which I always found amusing. I wanted to write a memoir, so...
REHMYeah, that's great.
QUINNAnd it seemed to me he had the ability. I never knew what held him back.
REHMBilly Collins, what kind of lasting impression do you think Frank McCourt makes on potential writers themselves?
COLLINSWell, I think it's his handling of unhappiness. You know, if misery is sort of the content of most literature, Frank had a way of turning suffering into a kind of boast, you know, in this very comic way and treating the sacred with a -- and leavening the sacred and the serious with a comic touch. And I think it's all the sort of the blending maybe this Irish mix of kind of self deprecation and kinda bragging about your own suffering, it's a charming mix. He's also a terrific sentence writer. He's one of the novelists or memoirists who it's a series of just good, strong, trustworthy, declarative sentences.
REHMAbsolutely. Coilin, do you wanna comment on that?
OWENSI would like to make one brief comment on the technique. It's deceptively simple in that the scene we had with the death of the little child, the coffining of the child, that's told indirectly through the voice of Pat, not in the voice of Angela or the narrator. But the technical skill with which that scene is managed is a sign of his mastery of the craft of retrieval and delivery with a high level of sophistication that the novel -- the memoir doesn't betray.
REHMAnd as a poet, Billy Collins, you must truly appreciate exactly how he has used the language.
COLLINSWell, of course there's the warmth and company of the voice. And no matter a tone is just essential to McCourt's writing. And no matter how miserable or oppressive the content is, we feel I think very protected and very protective of the narrator and warmed by his voice. He's also capable of lovely, simple imagery like the blue veins...
COLLINS...on the little baby there, you know, just a little touch like that.
COLLINSHe wouldn't go on and try to make it literary. It would just be a very keen observation and there are lots of those beautiful imagistic touches sprinkled throughout his books.
REHMAll right. I want to open the phones here. Let's go first to Nelson in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Good morning to you, sir.
NELSONGood morning. How are you today?
REHMFine, thanks. Go right ahead, please.
NELSONI read the book a couple of years ago and I found the most poignant part of the book as when he describes how he entered into his first sexual experiences with a young girl to whom's home he was delivering telegrams to. This young gal was dying of tuberculosis and how they flung themselves into this very passionate and loving relationship as brief as it was, because that young girl did die a few weeks later, and how they both searched and flung themselves in an attempt to reach that pinnacle of love and a relationship with close warmth and significant embracing emotionalism that they experienced with each other prior to this young gal passing on.
OWENSYes. Of course, the effect that it leaves on him besides the personal grief is his feeling that he may have damned her soul. And it takes him a long time to come to terms with that and he finds forgiveness only after a great deal of anguish has passed through his spirit.
QUINNWell, there's that great Franciscan priest who's one...
QUINN...who's one of the heroes of the book.
QUINNAnd you go to confession and you expect this scene where he's gonna flagellate him and he says, she's okay, you're okay, you know, forgive yourself, she's not in hell.
QUINNHe's given that official forgiveness which is really -- you know, I've heard the book described as anti-Catholic. I don't think it is at all. And I think there's scenes like that. There's the Dominican priest who, when he comes in and confesses stealing something, he says, I should be washing your feet.
REHMIsn't that something.
REHMHere's an email from Ann in St. Louis, "Frank writes about his father's odd manner and how family members would tell Frank that he had the same odd manner. It's never described in detail what this really was. I wonder what your panel thinks," says Ann. They really talked about the fact that he was from the north, had a different way of speaking, Caitriona, and perhaps a different outlook on Ireland itself.
PALMERWell, he's very much an outsider, Malachy from the north with the hint of the Presbyterian about him and his odd manner.
QUINNHis Presbyterian hair, I love that.
PALMERAnd his accent to me very much comes through when Frank writes, Malachy says ugh, you can hear the northern twang. But I think this outsider status permeates the family. It dooms them in many ways, not just the alcoholism, but Malachy is unable to find a job. He goes out in a suit and tie, a cotter and tie and is very respectable until, he says, when he opens his mouth and then he's unable to get a job. But poor Frank is damned with the odd manner as well. Aunt Aggie and Grandma Sheehan look disparagingly at him all the time and say he has a long puss like his father, and the odd manner and the hint of the Presbyterian.
REHMYeah. Billy Collins, any comment?
COLLINSWell, I think that also it's a kind of helpful thing for a writer, that sense of being marked as an outsider, because no matter how Frank was involved in his life and he was incredibly loving and extremely social, a gregarious person and people would just flock around him to listen to his stories. To be a writer -- and when he and I kinda were roommates every summer for a little while at a guest house in Long Island, and I'd get up at a respectable time, but I'd look down and he'd be outside writing with his notepads.
COLLINSSo I just think that outsider status is -- you know, when writers kind of go into themselves and to write you have to kind of not forget the world, but you have to kind of shut yourself off from it somewhat. So I think maybe that mark was a mark that he was special as someone who had to express his life and not just live it.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Granite City, Ill. Good morning, Aaron.
AARONGood morning, Diane. Love your show.
AARONThis is great. This is actually my birthday.
REHMOh, happy birthday to you.
AARONThank you. I'm a pastor of a small Protestant church here, not Presbyterian, but similar, you know, the Church of Christ.
AARONAnd I guess I wanted to share that I was reading "Angela's Ashes" this probably January, and I've always struggled with what words to say during the assurance of grace, 'cause we, you know, confess our sins corporately, not in a booth or anything. But I was reading "Angela's Ashes" and I came across the words, I think it was the Dominican at the end of "Angela's Ashes" who kind of assures Frank that, you know, it'll be okay. I mean, actually if you don't mind, I'll read it. It's just so beautiful.
AARON"God forgives you. You must forgive yourself. God loves you. You must love yourself. Only when you love God and yourself can you love all of God's creatures." And so I've been assuring the congregation of that for all of Lent, which is a good time to reassure people that they're not gonna burn in hell. (laugh)
REHMThat's really such a lovely passage.
QUINNWe used to laugh about the Franciscan church in New York because it's right by Penn Station and it was famous as the two-Hail-Marys-for-homicide church. That was...
QUINN...the Franciscans were so forgiving.
REHMOh, my, yes. Aaron, thanks for that call. And let's take a call here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Peggy.
PEGGYHello. Thank you for having me on. Such a fan of your show.
PEGGYI moved back to Washington from Texas, and I'll get you the Texas connection, but I was friends with Ellen before she met Frank. And I look back and think that, you know, she married Frank when he was a man of very modest means. And she did, I was glad to -- well, first of all, I'm glad to just hear the intricate insights of your guests and their, you know, their discussion of Frank and his charm and his grace and his tenderness and most of all, his humor.
PEGGYBut I was one of the founders of the Texas Book Festival when I was out there and I asked Ellen and Frank if we could get Frank out there to be the keynote for the event. And he just had won the Pulitzer Prize and I thought to myself originally, who wants to read this book about growing up in poverty and squalor in Limerick. And then I thought, well, he is my guest and it did win the Pulitzer Prize and of course I, like so many other people, have -- just was so taken by the book. In fact, hearing this conversation, it makes me want to go back and read it.
REHMI hope you will, Peggy. I think even having read it once before, having known them and now all these years later to read it again will be a true pleasure. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have one last portion of Frank McCourt reading about America.
MCCOURT"I'm on deck, at dawn, we sail into New York. I'm sure I’m in a film, that it will end and lights will come up in the lyric cinema. The priest wants to point out things, but he doesn't have to. I can pick out the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge. There are thousands of cars speeding along the roads, and the sun turns everything to gold. Rich Americans in top hats, white ties and tails, must be going home to bed with the gorgeous women with white teeth. The rest are going to work in warm, comfortable offices, and no one has a care in the world."
REHMCaitriona, how does Frank get the money to come back here to America?
PALMERWell, he works -- he's working as a telegram boy, but then he meets a woman, Mrs. Finucane, and he's writing letters to debtors because he has a fine fist and a fine grasp of the words. And there is an extraordinary scene at the end where Mrs. Finucane drops dead in a chair and Frank walks in to find her wide open dead in the chair and he basically takes money from her home, brings the ledger of debtors, throws in the River Shannon, freeing Aunt Aggie and other people from Limerick and has 40 pounds or 50 pounds in his pocket, and is able to buy a ticket to his freedom, which is America.
REHMWhen you think about that he's acting a little like Robin Hood by tossing this away, he's freeing all these people from their debts. But does he take that guilt with him? No?
OWENSNo, he does not. He feels that he has relieved a lot of people of an unjust debt. You see, he felt that this lady was overcharging and was gouging people and was pursuing them beyond what was just or fair, so he was doing something for the poor.
REHMAnd, Billy Collins, tell us about the last word in the book.
COLLINSOh, I just -- well, it's just that's the way it is, isn't it? I mean, it's sort of a -- it becomes the title of the next book. And it's kind of a resignation in a way and I think it ends on a kind of note of satisfaction or self recognition. You know, 'tis, 'tis that way.
QUINNAnd there's no word in Irish for yes. You have to say it is, it isn't. So that's a kind of -- it's a very Irish way to end the book. They don't have one word for it. And it's 'tis. It's a beautiful Anglo rendering of an Irish word and a perfect amen to the book.
REHMA perfect amen.
OWENSAnd a transformation of Molly Bloom's yes.
QUINNYou know, one thing I would add just at the end is that when the book came out, there was a lot people criticized that as exaggeration and that it was deprivation of the poor. And all the revelations that have come since have been far more bitter and hard to take than the ones Frank wrote about, the sexual abuse, the abuse in the institutions, children's institutions. If anything, there's more mercy and kindness and laughter in Frank's book than there was in reality.
REHMPeter Quinn, novelist, historian, author of "Looking for Jimmy: A Search For Irish America." Caitriona Palmer, Washington correspondent for the Irish Independent. Coilin Owens, Professor Emeritus of English at George Mason University. And former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Thank you all and let us once again enjoy the book "Angela's Ashes." Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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